A Brewing Fentanyl Crisis in Southeast Asia

The abuse of illicit fentanyl is an emerging threat in Southeast Asia as there are indications of mass production in Myanmar’s Shan State for distribution to the wider region.

For years, the illicit fentanyl epidemic has swept through North America, causing a large number of deaths and casualties.  Now, there are signs that it has reached the shores of Southeast Asia, presenting a clear and present danger to the regional authorities.  By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade 

The abuse of illicit fentanyl, a class of powerful synthetic opioid, is an emerging threat in Southeast Asia as there are indications of mass production in Myanmar’s Shan State for distribution to the wider region.  

Southeast Asia, in particular the Golden Triangle, has in recent years experienced a massive expansion of the illicit synthetic drug trade as the cartels turn their attention away from plant-based drugs like opium and heroin.  While there were only three synthetic opioids identified in the illicit drug supply of East and Southeast Asia in 2014, the number increased to 28 in 2019.  

Jeremy Douglas, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said: “Synthetic opioids like fentanyl and even more potent variations deserve much more attention than they receive in the region.  

“Production is known to migrate into places with deep governance problems like the Golden Triangle, and we are concerned Southeast Asia could become a source for other parts of the world while these substances get mixed into or displace part of the regional heroin supply.”

In May 2020, Myanmar police announced that during a drug operation from February to April, they have seized, near Loikan village in Shan State in northeast Myanmar, a record-breaking haul of 3,700 liters of methylfentanyl, a fentanyl analog which is most likely used to manufacture illicit fentanyl powder and tablets.  This haul is part of a bigger seizure that included other drugs, precursor chemicals and drug-making equipment. 

This fentanyl bust is a harbinger of an approaching crisis that will bring death and crimes which can potentially reach into every fabric of society.  This is the first time such mass fentanyl production has been found in Myanmar.  Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and 100 times more powerful than morphine.  It is fatal in a dose of as little as two milligrams, equivalent to just a few grains of sand.  

In North America alone, illicit fentanyl has caused hundreds of thousand overdose deaths.  On average, 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose every day, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

And now with this bust, it can be postulated that Asian drug cartels have moved into the lucrative synthetic opioid market with the capacity to manufacture fentanyl locally in Southeast Asia, which will probably be distributed inside Myanmar and around the region.  

However, it is also possible that part of the supply is meant for the wider Asia Pacific region, riding on the well-established methamphetamine trafficking routes to reach East Asia, South Asia, and even further afield to Australia and New Zealand.

These drug cartels, already active in the Golden Triangle with their regional supply chains, connections and existing labs, can with relative ease produce and supply fentanyl alongside other synthetic drugs. 

What makes Southeast Asia ripe for fentanyl crisis?

There are four major factors at play here: The China factor, a conducive environment, an uninterrupted supply of chemicals needed to produce fentanyl, and a burgeoning middle class with high disposable income.

In May 2019, the Chinese central government clamped down hard on illegal fentanyl manufacturers by banning all fentanyl-related substances for nonmedical use.  However, this has the unintended effect of shifting drug production into neighboring Myanmar, especially in locations controlled by armed ethnic groups, where there is a favorable climate with lax law enforcement.  

In Myanmar’s Shan State, a known drug hub, there are heavy forested areas to hide the labs which are protected by government-backed militias and ethnic rebel armies.  The chemicals that are needed to synthesize fentanyl are easily available from China, India, Thailand and Vietnam which can be smuggled into Myanmar through porous borders.

Finally, like any other money-making businesses, it is important to have a sustainable demand and, in this regard, the two billion middle-class Asians are a potential source.  By 2030, the number is projected to rise to 3.5 billion.  In Southeast Asia alone, 50 million new consumers are likely to elevate to the middle-class with a total of US$300 billion disposable income.

Thriving during the pandemic

In a bizarre way, the Asian drug cartels, just like certain legitimate industries, are profiting off the pandemic.  While countries are enforcing lockdowns to restrict physical travel and movement of goods, there is hardly any impact on the synthetic drug supply coming out of the Golden Triangle.  In fact, the pandemic has provided a business opportunity for these drug kingpins to expand their market share and prove how resilient and innovative they are.

“It is hard to imagine that organized crime has again managed to expand the drug market, but they have”, said Douglas. “While the world has shifted its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, all indications are that production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals continue at record levels in the region.”  

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